President Trump at the White House on Wednesday. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
Contributing columnist

The House is on fire. And with each passing day, Donald Trump defiles the office of the president. If only past defrocked presidents could provide a roadmap for this firestorm.

Andrew Johnson fought impeachment vigorously and survived removal, but never won reelection. Richard Nixon got in the way of justice, but eventually bowed to the rule of law, accepting his asterisk in the annals of history and resigning before certain removal. Bill Clinton expressed contrition, went on to complete his presidency with high approval ratings and has remained a popular former president.

If you care about democracy, the rule of law and nearly 250 years of constitutional governance, take heed. President Trump is no Clinton or Nixon, or even Johnson. He will not go quietly. It will be ugly. He will betray us and the rule of law in the process — defying subpoenas, withholding documents, blocking witnesses.

This presidency is fouled with disrespect for rules, boundaries and norms. Trump walked away from major agreements negotiated by his predecessors — the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate accord — and the United States’ word as bond is no more. Look at the ease with which he discards supporters — ask former attorney general Jeff Sessions or former secretary of state Rex Tillerson. Ask our allies, here today, gone tomorrow — NATO, the Kurds in Syria.

From his earliest days as a candidate, Trump voiced appallingly arrogant views about the power of the presidency: “Mexico will pay for the wall!” ; “I alone can fix it”; “My primary consultant is myself.” His possessiveness over people and institutions is also not new: “my generals and my military,” “my African American.”

Only months into his presidency, Trump disparaged democratic allies, including Germany’s Angela Merkel (“ruining Germany”) and Britain’s Theresa May (“foolish”) — notably, both women — in favor of strong-arm leaders such as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un (who wrote him “beautiful letters”), Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman (“very good ally”), Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan (“great friendship”) and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte (“great relationship”). Trump heaps praise on Russia’s Vladimir Putin (“he’s a strong leader”). And, days after revealing his words pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to dig up dirt on his opponent, he invited China to do it, too.

Trump’s campaign for the White House was rotten from the beginning. We glimpsed its depths when his lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance felonies and identified Trump as “Individual 1” in a conspiracy to pay off an adult-film star and a former Playboy model to silence them during the height of the 2016 presidential campaign. We got even more evidence of Trump’s deception in the dense report prepared by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election to benefit Trump and try to defeat Hillary Clinton. Mueller laid the groundwork for at least 10 acts of obstruction of justice.

Even with all of that, it’s this still-unraveling Ukraine story that makes clear the bits and pieces that we could only imagine with Trump’s pleas to “Russia, if you’re listening . . . .” We have the same threats, lies, subterfuge and obstruction — only this time, we have the president’s unambiguous words to Zelensky: “I would like you to do us a favor though.” Ukraine represents the same lawlessness that propelled Trump over the finish line in 2016: this time in plain sight, with witnesses, including at least one whistleblower and lots of bit players. From the State Department to the Energy Department to the Justice Department and throughout the White House, Trump is using every bit of the machinery of government and personnel at his disposal to strongarm a small country under the heel of its threatening Russian neighbor — all to get manufactured dirt on a political opponent.

It’s illegal. The evidence is bearing fruit. The time will come. And justice will be served.

The president’s personal approval rating remains low, though stable, but there is growing support for impeachment — a Fox News poll this week found that 51 percent support removing Trump from office. Independents, as well as Democrats, mostly support the impeachment inquiry, while Republicans are mostly holding tight. These things may or may not change.

Either way, we will be changed if we do not right this ship of democracy.

“Impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.” We should heed these words, spoken by the 1999 version of Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). The fire did not start with Ukraine. Nonetheless, Ukraine may give us the water to finally put it out.

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